Dance, People

Soul Sisters, With a History of Accomplishment

Regan Sweeney and Olivia Lisowski finish each other’s sentences. They’re a font of shared experiences, with a deep love of Irish dance, music and culture.

And one more thing: family.

“Our families are very close, ever since we were little,” says Regan. “We’ve done everything together—more siblings than cousins. And we’re lucky to have that because she (Olivia) lives in Havertown, I live in Malvern, and we just do a lot of the same things together. Since our moms (Sheila McGrory Sweeney and Maureen Heather Lisowski) are sisters, they’ve really instilled in us the idea that family is important.”

They also share each other’s victories. For Regan, a member of the McDade-Cara School of Irish Dance, it was a 1st place finish for her Loyola University Maryland Irish dance team at the Southern Region Oireachtas in the college ceili competition. The week before, she finished 17th in her solo competition at the Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas in Philadelphia.

For Olivia, a sophomore at West Chester University, it was being crowned Mary from Dungloe by the Donegal Association of Philadelphia. The college ceili competition and Mary from Dungloe happened on the same night in early December.

Even though they’ve gone on to do different things, they continue to be united in their passion for Irish dance and culture.

Regan continues to compete. She has gone to the World Irish Dancing Championships. Her team from McDade-Cara finished third at the Worlds last April and has finished in the top 10 several times.

She’s still at it at an age when many dancers have hung up their hard shoes.

“Competitively, I had a goal to compete in the North American Nationals this coming July,” she says. “But I don’t know. I was talking to my mom and she’s not sure I’m ready. Maybe I have one more Oireachtas in me. And then something that has interested me is dancing in shows. A few years ago, I went to Riverdance Summer School, which I had auditioned for. It was such a great experience. It was held at Boston University and it was a week long. I was taught by the cast and directors of Riverdance, and we learned all the parts of the show and what it takes to be in a show. That really interests me. I feel like the next step might be dancing in a show, but we’ll see.”

Olivia stopped competing in high school, but she keeps her hand in, helping her mother teach the Second Street Irish Society dancers.

“When I was about a sophomore in high school, that’s when I stopped dancing competitively and I focused more on running and on playing the fiddle,” says Olivia. “But I never stopped Irish dancing. I still continue to teach in South Philly with my mom once a week, and I love coming back and seeing the kids dance here and going to the competitions.”

Olivia is also on the dance team at West Chester University.

In fact, Regan and Olivia met up recently at Villanova’s collegiate Irish dance competition—a friendly rivalry.

“It was really cool,” says Regan. “seeing as though we’ve both danced from day care on, but going to different colleges, competing against different teams, it’s really cool, too. Seeing people I haven’t seen for years, it was fun.”

In keeping with her affinity for all things Irish, Olivia has for years been a member of the Next Generation, a group of young people who get together to learn and play Irish music. Next Gen is the brainchild of Dennis Gormley, Kathy DeAngelo and Chris Brennan Hagy.

“I love going (to Next Gen),” Olivia says. “And I love seeing the next generation of Irish music being passed on. My brother and sister both play instruments, and we all go together.”

She actually started out learning classical violin at age 5, and then around age 7 she started learning some Irish fiddle tunes from her uncle Jim McGrory. “I’ve been hooked ever since,” she says. “I liked Irish music more than classical.” Ultimately, she went on to take lessons from the great Brian Conway.

Playing fiddle didn’t help Olivia win the Mary from Dungloe competition—there was no talent component. But there was an interview beforehand, and she obviously impressed the judges. “All the girls I competed against were very nice girls,” Olivia says. “They were all awesome and I loved meeting all of them.”

As this year’s Mary from Dungloe, Olivia will represent the Irish community to the public, which she’s eager to do.

Both of these young women believe they’re ultimately carrying on the legacy of Maureen McDade McGrory, their grandmother, whom they never met. (She passed away in 1993.) Maureen McDade McGrory started the McDade School of Irish Dance, now known as the McDade-Cara School of Irish Dance.

It’s their hope that they can one day continue the tradition.

Says Regan, “Hopefully, in a few years we’ll be able to take over the school that my mom, Maureen Heather and the other McDade-Cara teachers have done such a great job with. The school is really thriving, and I feel like that would be a great tribute to her.”

As always, family rules.

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